After graduating from the Yale School of Drama with an MFA, unknown Lupita Nyong’o landed her breakthrough role in Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave.” That performance earned her critical acclaim, and an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress — only the sixth black actress to win that award — and put her on the path to Hollywood stardom. Nyong’o’s trajectory may be an unusual model for overnight success, but it’s one that “If Beale Street Could Talk” star Kiki Layne is poised to adapt.
Both women were unknown young actresses of color before they scored prominent roles in acclaimed films from black directors. While their stories are separated by five years, they both contend with a film industry working through its diversity challenges. And like Nyong’o, Layne scored her first feature role in a high-profile picture that was adapted from a period novel and directed by a revered, high-profile black filmmaker — and has placed her at the center of Oscar conversation even as she remains virtually unknown.
“I’ve wanted to act since I was a little girl, and I’ve done the necessary work to get to this point, so I believe it’s all happening right when it’s supposed to,” said Layne. “I can see that my life is changing, but things haven’t gotten really crazy yet, like I’m not recognized when I’m walking down the street. So you can say that I’m just enjoying that anonymity while I still have it.”
She added that she had anticipated this moment a long time ago. “The way I look at it is that, well, I signed up for this when I decided to pursue a career as an actress,” she said, “so whatever comes with that, I have to be prepared for it.”
While “Beale Street” benefited from film festival exposure in Toronto and New York ahead of its November 30 release, the 26-year-old Layne is still a relative mystery to audiences, much in the same way Nyong’o was prior to the release of “12 Years A Slave.” Early notices heaped praise on “Beale Street,” which Jenkins adapted from the 1974 novel by James Baldwin. It casts Layne as 19-year-old Tish, whose idyllic New York romance with her childhood friend Fonny (Stephan James) is jeopardized when Fonny is arrested on false charges by a vindictive white police officer.
After Tish learns she’s carrying Fonny’s child, she’s thrust into adulthood as she becomes the stabilizing force when she and her family dedicate their lives to ensuring Fonny’s release from prison. Layne depicts that journey from wholesome innocence to exhausting responsibility with utter conviction.
Both Layne and Nyong’o were selected out of hundreds of young actresses who auditioned for their parts, many of whom had appeared in a feature film before. Neither actress had tackled such complex, substantial roles in film, and both called for them to portray young black women having to survive extraordinary circumstances.
Both women had backgrounds in theater. Nyong’o began her career as part of a Nairobi-based repertory company; Layne attended a performance arts high school in Cincinnati, and spent her post-college years working through the competitive Chicago theater scene. Prior to “Beale Street,” her screen credits were limited to one episode of the NBC medical drama series “Chicago Med.”
Presumably, she’ll get better offers now. Unlike Nyong’o, Layne’s moment comes as the industry appears to be on the cusp of real progressive change in terms of opportunities for women and people of color.
After her Oscar win, Nyong’o wasn’t considered for the kinds of roles offered to her white contemporaries with similar resumes. Four years after her Oscar win, the actress was initially relegated to playing a computer-generated alien in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” voicing a character in Jon Favreau’s “The Jungle Book,” and a supporting role in Disney’s “The Queen of Katwe.”
Things have picked up of late: After playing Nakia in “Black Panther,” Nyong’o booked lead roles in Jordan Peele’s mysterious socio-thriller “Us,” John Woo’s English-language remake of his revered 1989 action movie “The Killer,” and the untitled Simon Kinberg spy thriller in which she’ll star opposite Oscar winners Marion Cotillard and Penélope Cruz, and Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain. She’ll also star with fellow Oscar winner Viola Davis in “The Woman King,” which tells the story of the all-female military unit known as the Dahomey Amazons.
But this all took place prior to #OscarsSoWhite and other industry-inclusive initiatives, and Layne said she recognizes that the cultural moment is in her favor. “I’m really very thankful to be entering the business at this time,” she said. “I think it’s not only that Hollywood is now starting to pay attention to our stories. It’s also that we are starting to take control. We’re not waiting for permission anymore. More of us are just finding ways to get our work produced and seen, and I think that’s how it had to be. We know we’ve always had the talent, and we’re now in an environment that is more open to us expressing ourselves fully. It’s truly a great time for us.”
She singled out her “Beale Street” co-star Regina King, who plays her mother in the film, as a personal idol. “I just think the way Regina King carries herself in this industry is something to strive for,” Layne said. “Even though she’s been in the business as long as she has, she’s still just one of the most genuine, realest people I’ve met so far. And so watching her, I realize that I don’t have to change who I am at the core in order to have a career.”
Unlike Nyong’o, Layne isn’t considered a frontrunner in her category, but if the exposure brings her new opportunities, they may come faster. She recently signed with WME and has already booked a series of high-profile projects, including co-starring in A24’s adaptation of another novel by a seminal black author, Richard Wright’s “Native Son.” She’ll also appear in the forthcoming Rupert Wyatt-directed sci-fi thriller “Captive State.” Both films are set to open in 2019.
Nevertheless, she’s managing expectations. “I’ve already shot my next film, which isn’t a big-time Hollywood blockbuster,” she said, referring to the Wright adaptation. “I’m not really chasing that. I’ve been working to get to this level for so long, and I just want to act and do good work with talented people. And I have to trust that God will always have me right where he wants me to be.”
She added that she wasn’t waiting for the industry to tell her what to do. “I’m not going to sit around and wait for some old studio executive to decide my career path,” she said. “I want to have the kind of career in which I’m accomplished and respected enough that I’m able to open doors for other people, especially those who look like me. That’s what happiness and success could look like for me.”
In the meantime, awards season has begun, and Layne continues to move in front of the pack: Earlier this month, she landed a nomination for Breakthrough Actor from the Gotham Awards, set to take place in December. Coincidentally, Nyong’o was also a nominee in the same category, for her performance in “12 Years a Slave,” in 2013. She lost, but it was to another rising star on a notable upswing — her future “Black Panther” co-star Michael B. Jordan.
Annapurna Pictures opens “If Beale Street Could Talk” on November 30.